AMERICAN SAMOA, a territory of the UNITED STATES in the PACIFIC OCEAN, consists of the eastern half of the Samoan archipelago and comprises five volcanic islands: the main island of Tutuila and its smaller partner, Anu’u, plus the islands of Ofu, Olosega, and Ta’u (the Manu’a Islands) to the east.
The territory, with its capital at Pago Pago, is 77.6 square mi (199 square km) and has a highest point at Lata of 3,188 ft (966 m). It has a population of 70,260. The territory also includes the more distant coral atolls, Rose and Sand, and tiny Swains Island, far to the north. The islands extend roughly 186 mi (300 km) from west to east and are located about two-thirds of the way from HAWAII to NEW ZEALAND.
The main town and administrative center, Pago Pago, has one of the best natural deepwater harbors in the South Pacific Ocean, protected from rough seas and high winds. Strategically located at the crossroads of the South Pacific, the harbor at Pago Pago attracted the attention of the U.S. Navy as early as the 1870s and remained a primary coaling point for U.S. ships crossing the Pacific until the end of World War I, when oil replaced coal in most larger vessels. Since then, American Samoa has remained a relative backwater and has thus retained much of its traditional way of life, unlike many of its neighbors.
American Samoa’s nearest neighbors are the sovereign states of [Western] SAMOA and TONGA to the west and southwest and the New Zealand dependencies of Tokelau, Cook Islands and Niue to the north, east, and south. The islands lie just to the east of the INTERNATIONAL DATE LINE and at the intersection of the three cultural divisions of POLYNESIA, MICRONESIA, and MELANESIA, though the Samoans themselves fall within the Polynesian sphere. The islands are volcanic in origin, with rugged peaks and limited coastal plains.
The climate is tropical marine, with ample rainfall, stimulating dense forests on most the islands and allowing cultivation of bananas, coconuts, taro, breadfruit, yams, copra, pineapples, and papayas. Industries are limited to several large tuna canneries, plus local handicrafts and garments. Tourism is not heavy, since there is limited airline service. The canneries were opened in the 1950s and 1960s and constituted 90 percent of all exports in 1995. But few locals want to work there, so half the labor force are aliens, mostly from Western Samoa and tonga. Young American Samoans are increasingly leaving for the mainland United States for higher education and employment opportunities. The population thus varies widely (for example, in 1984 it was given as only 36,000). About 90 percent live on Tutuila, mostly near Pago Pago.
The islands were settled long before European contact in the 18th century. Native chiefs looked to the United States in the late 19th century for protection against the squabbles of European colonial powers. The first treaty with a local chief allowing U.S. boats to anchor in Pago Pago Harbor was signed in 1872, and negotiations between Great Britain, Germany, and the United States led to a partition in 1899 (at 171 degrees west longitude), though the ranking Samoan chiefs did not formally cede their territories until 1904 (after the United States had already set up its administration).
The larger islands in the group, Upolu and Savai’i, went to GERMANY and from 1962 formed the independent nation of Samoa. The population of the eastern islands in 1900 was less than 6,000. After World War I, the Samoans were mostly left to themselves, and their traditional system of government and familybased communal landownership was preserved. Subsistence economy was successful and local traditions were strong, so many Western influences were either rejected or, like Christianity, molded to fit the Samoan way.
Since 1951 the islands have fallen under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and a new constitution was adopted in 1966, but, unlike America’s other territories in the Pacific, there is little desire to change the status quo, either toward independence or toward closer affiliation with the United States. The islands rely on heavy subsidies and welfare programs but are also wary of losing their traditional way of life by submitting entirely to U.S. law (for example, the continuation of government leadership by semi-hereditary chiefs, the matai, and the system of communal landholding, under which about 92 percent of the land continues to be held by traditional kin groups). American Samoa thus remains an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the United States. Samoans are mostly self-governing, and strict restrictions of immigration are intended to preserve their autonomy and traditional culture.